Where He Wrote: Periodicals and the Essays of George Orwell

By Marks, Peter | Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Where He Wrote: Periodicals and the Essays of George Orwell


Marks, Peter, Twentieth Century Literature


George Orwell has attained something akin to the status of a cultural icon, ironic given the myth of him as an iconoclast. While Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four account for much of this acclaim, Orwell's essays also contribute significantly, and the writer enjoys an honored place in the pantheon of essayists. Seen by some, though not all, as a clear-eyed teller of unpleasant truths, Orwell could also write endearing, perceptive, and unselfconscious pieces about postcards, tea-making, and toads. His essays are used frequently as mortar to support blocks of biographical or psychological speculation, the result of a supposed difficulty in separating the writer and his writings. The very title of Orwell's essay "Why I Write" seems to cry out for such treatment, and the cry has often been answered. In this foregrounding the writer, however, the periodical context in which and for which Orwell wrote his essays often has been ignored. Yet where Orwell wrote is scarcely less important than why he wrote.

An indication of the periodical's importance comes from Orwell himself. "The mentality of the English left-wing intelligentsia can be studied in half a dozen weekly and monthly papers," he claims in his 1941 essay "The Lion and the Unicorn" (74).(1) Given that a year earlier his "Boys' Weeklies" had mapped out the terrain for a survey of boys' magazines, the comment signals an abiding interest in the periodical press. In the later essay, however, Orwell comes not to praise the weeklies and monthlies but to bury them - or, at least, to rough them up a little. He declares, "The immediately striking thing about all these papers is their generally negative, querulous attitude, their complete lack at all times of any constructive suggestion" (74). Orwell names no names (thus damning all), but a paragraph later suggests some suspects, lashing the New Statesman and Nation and the News Chronicle for colluding in the "intellectual sabotage from the Left" of English morale. The accusation carries serious implications, Orwell charging that as a result of this sabotage "Fascist nations judged that [the English people! were 'decadent' and that it was safe to plunge into war" (75). Inflammatory stuff, certainly, but there remains an intriguing and telling twist. In the same month in which Orwell was writing "The Lion and the Unicorn," his short, appreciative study of the Victorian novelist Charles Reade appeared. What surprises is not the subject of this essay but the site of publication: the allegedly negative, querulous, unconstructive New Statesman and Nation.

Clearly, Orwell was not frightened to bite the hand that fed him (admittedly, the New Statesman and Nation provided only occasional sustenance) but more productive insights can be drawn. First, Orwell acknowledges the centrality of periodicals and papers to the thinking of the English left-wing intelligentsia in the 1930s and 1940s. Young readers of Magnet and Gem were not the only group affected by the periodical press. Second, and more important, he uses those same organs to broadcast his own ideas. The significance of the periodical to the development and transmission of his opinions, however, has largely gone unrecognized. This despite the fact that Orwell's association with periodicals can be traced back to the very beginnings of his writing career. Indeed, periodicals provided that start. For nearly two years before the publication in 1933 of his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, his writing (reviews, articles, and essays) appeared only in journals and weeklies.

Reviewing the second number of the periodical New Writing in 1936, Robert Waller notes that Orwell, who had contributed "Shooting an Elephant," "is an Adelphi discovery" (188). Since Waller was writing in The Adelphi, this claim to a promising young author lacks a certain impartiality. Nevertheless, the boast contains a sizable element of truth, Orwell's (then Eric A. Blair's) sketch "The Spike" having been published in The Adelphi in 1931. …

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